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Jaw-Dropper from Wardropper: Expansion to Temporarily Expel Frick Collection’s Collection

More on this here.

It was bad enough when we learned that the Frick Collection might need to close its New York home for about two years to accommodate the construction for its latest (downsized) expansion plan, designed by Selldorf Architects.

But until Monday, when director Ian Wardropper extensively briefed me on the project, I hadn’t understood that the entire collection would need to be banished from the building, to protect the art from the vibrations, disruptions and debris from the expansion and renovation, and the repurposing of existing space.

The project has significantly decreased in size (providing about 17,000 square feet of additional space, compared to 60,000 previously planned) but dramatically increased in scope (a sweeping upgrade of infrastructure), compared to the prior iteration, which controversially would have eliminated the Frick’s Russell Page-designed “viewing garden” (an enclave that is closed to visitors, but visible from the Frick’s windows). That space from the garden would have allowed the Frick, during construction, to keep the art on the premises, but out of harm’s way.

Garden guardians successfully opposed the previous design by Davis Brody Bond (DDB). Here’s a view of the garden through the gate on 70th Street, as it appeared on Monday…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and here’s a detail of the pond:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“When you talk about the ramifications of not building on the garden site, that’s the biggest,” Wardropper said when my jaw dropped at the notion of banishing the entire permanent collection from the premises for an extended period of time.

Ian Wardropper in his Frick office, fronting “Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni,” ca. 1804, by Césarine-Henriette-Flore Davin-Mirvault (a pupil of David)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The director still seems to prefer the original plan (as do I). But he’s seizing victory from the jaws of defeat:

It would have made my life easier if we had done that first plan. But given that it wasn’t going to happen, we ended up with a really good architect and a really good team….

I wish we weren’t going to close, but there are some good things that will come out of it. Infrastructures have become increasingly important as a need for us: The heating and air conditioning systems are on their last legs. The electrical system has been maintained valiantly since 1935, but it needs a complete updating. Our skylights need to be replaced.

We had been looking at infrastructure in 2013-2014, but this time around, because we have to move the art collection, there’s no question that this is when we’ve got to do this. We might have staged it over time, but if we’re going to close, do it now. I’m actually slightly grateful that we have to: It’s 100 years old.

The Frick, as seen from 5th Avenue
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

There’s another rare opportunity afforded by the collection dislocation—the possibility of dispatching major loan shows of Frick masterpieces: “I’m talking to a number of cultural institutions in the city,” Ian said, “but we need to clarify our legal position. As you know, Henry Clay Frick’s will said that we couldn’t lend.” (The museum can and does lend works that did not come from the founder’s collection.)

“We want to make it absolutely clear that we’re on firm [legal] ground….We’ve been working with various lawyers for a year now. We want to be sure, when we go forward, that we’ve thought of everything….I’m very hopeful that we can come up with some interesting ways to show our collection, which we would never do here because of the nature of the display at the Frick.”

Also yet to be determined is the project’s cost. Construction expenses are estimated (for now) at $160 million, but that doesn’t include collection-related outlays, increased endowment and other funding needs. “There are a lot of variables that I just don’t know yet,” Wardropper noted, including the possible income from loan shows. He wouldn’t say how much had already been raised in the capital campaign’s “quiet phase” (the initial solicitation from major patrons that customarily occurs before fundraising goes public), but he stated that “the board has been very generous.”

The new plan recently passed muster with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and moves next to the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), where the Frick will seek several variances. He expects the BSA review to be “pro forma….Part of it has to do with the distribution of the building on the land. We need a height variance for mid-block. It’s a long process: It can take 6-9 months to go through the BSA.”

It’s not over till the jackhammer sings.

Coming Soon: More on the welcome (and some not-so-welcome) planned changes to the Frick’s physical plant (including the doomed Music Room).

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